How is meaning of a poem heightened by its music? In Bill Herbert’s manual, Writing Poetry, there’s an interview with Sean O’Brien about the composition of O’Brien’s poem, ‘Cousin Coat‘. We learn from this that early drafts were written not in the rhymed iambic pentameters readers know, but in free verse. Why the change?
Sean O’Brien explains that he wanted to bring the form into alignment with its theme. The poem explores the enduring influence of the narrator’s northern working-class tradition, and his ambivalence about its constraints and virtues. In choosing a final form the poet turns to iambic pentameter – the historically central ‘clothing’ of poetry in English, the verse equivalent of the ‘coat’ which the narrator cannot but wear. Sean O’Brien says he had to work hard at mastering the pentameter line, achieving strength by means of constraint. The result is a formal music that powerfully enacts the poem’s verbal meaning.